The military rulers of Myanmar are brutal, repressive, incompetent, superstitious -- in sum, genuinely loathsome. But now is not the moment to say so, as the White House has made a habit of doing lately. With the death toll from the worst Southeast Asian cyclone since 1991 mounting to more than 22,000, and with at least 41,000 more people missing, this is the time to offer help -- and to pray for the sake of the afflicted that it will be accepted.
It has been clear for more than a decade -- and especially since last year's suppression of the would-be Saffron Revolution -- that Myanmar's odious junta cannot be shamed into reform. It is too isolated and xenophobic to worry about its image, too paranoid to learn from outsiders and too blood-drenched to believe it can survive any loosening of control over its hapless people. The contradictory combination of U.S. sanctions and an engagement strategy adopted by its neighbors has failed to produce any improvement. Attempts to use the catastrophe of Tropical Cyclone Nargis as leverage to pry open the country will almost surely fail as well.
The White House has sent mixed messages to Myanmar since the cyclone struck, and that could have dangerous consequences for a country whose poverty, bad governance and lack of infrastructure make its population particularly susceptible to disaster. On Monday, even as the U.S. Embassy in Yangon offered $250,000 in emergency aid, First Lady Laura Bush excoriated the "inept" junta for failing to warn its people of the approaching storm. She has been a courageous critic of the regime, but the timing of her demarche was terrible.
Then on Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino announced another $3 million in aid and pressed for full access for relief workers, who are still waiting for visas. But on the same day, President Bush signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- a stick in the eye to the junta.
The United States should focus on getting food, water and medicine to the suffering population and save the scolding for later. And it should work behind the scenes to convince the junta's two key enablers, India and China, both of which have major energy interests there, that a better-governed Myanmar is in their national and regional best interests.